What is a Tres Cubano?

The typical tres cubano is a mango shaped instrument of the guitar family which evolved in Cuba. Commonly it is called “el tres”, but is also referred to as “tres por seis” and as “guitarra tres”. It is strung with 3 courses of metal strings–each course usually has 2 strings which are tuned in unison or octaves. Occasionally, instruments are strung with single strings or courses of three strings. While the mango or pear shape is most prevalent, many tres cubanos are shaped like small guitars or cutaway requinto guitars.

In Cuba these instruments were traditionally made one at a time by instrument makers who were largely self-taught. In recent years, workshops in Spain (e.g., Guitarras Esteve) have been making high quality production and fine artesan tres cubanos. Also, Mexico and some Asian countries have started making production instruments. While a few workshops outside Cuba are now producing instruments, for many years it was nearly impossible for potential players to acquire an authentic or really playable tres cubanos. The typical solution was to adapt a standard acoustic guitar or a Spanish guitar by respacing the strings and by using a capo on the 4th or 5th fret to reduce the string length.

While the tres exists in many forms and sizes, the typical modern (mango shaped) instrument has a:

  • soundboard of spruce or western red cedar,
  • back and sides of mahogany, mongoy (ovankol), or - rosewood
  • neck of Spanish cedar or mahogany
  • fingerboard of rosewood or ebony
  • string length of 535mm to 540mm
  • body length of 450mm
  • lower bout of 340mm
  • waist of 250mm
  • upper bout of 240mm
  • body depth of 100mm
  • soundboard and back thicknesses of 2.5 to 3.0mm
  • fan bracing with 3, 6 or 9 struts
  • nut with or 42mm to 48mm
  • neck which joins the body at the 10th or 12th fret
  • rosette made of wooden mosaic
  • pick guard of clear or colored plastic
  • tail piece attached to the base of the instrument for tying on strings

At the time of writing these few paragraphs there exists very little convincing historical or descriptive literature on the tres cubano.

It is unclear when the tres achieved its own identity in Cuba distinct from its European ancestors. One French work (Guitares hispano-américanes, by Bruno Montanaro, 1983, Édisud. pp 161-163) discusses the 16th century bandola and the later bandurria as the ancestor of the tres. Maybe there is a vague historical link but such geneological information does not really give us insight into the particular Cuban character of the tres or its early use in Cuban popular music. The most helpful authoritative source I know of at this time is 11 pages in volume 2 of a work entitled, Instrumentos de la Música Folclórico-Popular de Cuba, from Centro de Investigacíon y Desarrollo de la Música Cubana published by Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, La Habana (Cuba) written by Victoria Eli Rodriguez et.al., published in 1997.

I hope some reader of these words will devote time to studying and writing about the early history of the tres.

Ronald Louis Fernández, Ph.D. Fernández Music

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Cuban Masters Series - Cuban Tres